Most of the homes in Cortland County were built in the 1940s and 1950s, according to Aaron Baier, the executive director of Access to Independence of Cortland County Inc.
Dawn Hapgood’s house on Cortland’s Huntington Street is one of them.
Hapgood, who has spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, moved into her home seven years ago and, due to her disability, needed modifications to make it more accessible.
These included grab bars, a seat in her shower and other adjustments.
Because of old house designs not meant for people like Hapgood, challenges can occur for people who are not fully abled.
That is where universal design, or designing a home or building to be accessible to anyone, comes into play.
Even for those who don’t have a disability, universal design can be a useful tool as the county’s population ages and people become more limited in their mobility. This becomes more important with an aging population of Baby Boomers looking to age in their homes.
“We need to start thinking that traditional home design is maybe antiquated and could use an improvement,” Baier said.
A home for all
Universal design is “the process of creating products that are accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, and other characteristics,” according to an article from the University of Washington’s Disabilities, Opportunities, Interworking and Technology Center’s website.
“Typically, products are designed to be most suitable for the average user,” the article said. “In contrast, products that are designed according to principles of universal design are designed to be usable by everyone, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”
In application to homes, this could mean things such as putting in graded ramps to doors instead of stairs, adding grab bars in bathrooms, creating wider bathrooms for wheelchairs and creating barrier-less bathtubs, Baier said.
“Really, universal design is about considering the needs of all people,” he said.
This can also mean less obviously notable but still helpful changes like putting light switches, thermostats and other devices lower on walls for people in wheelchairs, for example.
In terms of bigger, more noticeable changes, this could include creating wider doorways and installing home elevators to reach non-ground level floors, Baier said.
Past and future changes
When Happgood first moved into her house, she had trouble walking around on the carpeted floors, she said. Her crutches would catch.
“With carpet, it’s not so easy to walk,” she said.
In addition to having some of her carpeting removed, she had grab bars, a shower seat, a walk-in bath and a wall-mounted sink installed in her bathroom.
The changes to her bathroom have been “extremely helpful,” especially her modified shower– it doesn’t require getting over the side of the tub on her stomach like she used to, Hapgood said.
The cost of the work was covered under funding through the state’s Department of Health from Medicaid waivers, so she didn’t have to pay out of pocket. Hapgood could use a little more help, though. She’s looking to have all of the carpeting removed from her home and replaced with vinyl flooring, and also hopes to have parts of her kitchen redone, including easier to reach cupboards and a new stove that will be more accessible to her.
While the process of applying for these fixes can be lengthy, including getting recommendations from a doctor or caregiver and submitting those recommendations to the state, she said it is worth it in the end.
“It’s a very lengthy process but once it’s all done, you have something to say, ‘wow, this is accessible for me,’” Hapgood said.
Varying changes, immense results
In the design and planning stages of building a home, universal design may only add about 5% to the total cost, said John Quinn, the senior architectural access design specialist at Access to Independence.
In comparison, adding accessibility features to a traditional house may be much more costly.
According to an article on universal design by How Stuff Works, some features may “cost 20 times more than if they’d been put in at the start,” the article said.
“For example, installing a wider doorway during home construction may only cost $6 more than a conventional home, the cost of a bigger door,” the article said. “If done as part of a remodel, it may cost $650, to account for the reworking of the doorway.”
Other costly installations could include adding home elevators costing tens of thousands of dollars.
“It is expensive,” Quinn said on the cost for installing in homes already built.
The majority of the work done by Access to Independence for universal design is paid through Medicaid funding, which helps ease the burden on those who need the modifications.
“All these projects have a pretty big impact on the people that they’re for,” he said. “I’ve had people crying that they’re so thankful that they can take a shower.”
A need for the future
While Cortland-based Thoma Development Consultants doesn’t directly do work relating to universal design, or specifically designing new houses for accessibility, the organization does a fair amount of work in helping renovate current homes to be more accessible, said Senior Consultant Richard Cunningham.
During housing rehabilitation projects overseen by the organization, work to make a home more accessible may be incorporated, he said.
“It really is dependent on what their (the homeowners’) cases may be,” Cunningham said.
Thoma Development, which also works on comprehensive planning for the county, also takes universal design into account for planning preparations.
More recently, home designers have become more skilled at designing homes with accessibility in mind.
“You see over time designers who become much more adept at making houses become universally accessible and not looking very much different,” Cunningham said.
The city of Cortland will soon announce an application written by Thoma Development Consultants under the Downtown Revitalization Initiative that includes an accessible housing project with wider doorways and barrier-less showers, he said. Cunningham couldn’t give more details as the project has not officially been awarded yet.
The idea of having a more accessible home shouldn’t scare owners away.
In fact, it can be a useful accommodation.
“It’s not always housing for an individual with needs, but maybe to have people be able to visit as well,” he said.